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The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.... Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals. physicist Albert. A. Michelson, 1894

11. FREE WILL Previous | Next

Your decisions are not your own

EVERY day, we live under the spell of an illusion: that our conscious mind is autonomous, and in control of our bodies and decisions. We think we have free will, yet as neuroscience digs ever deeper into the mystery of the human brain, that delusion becomes harder to justify. We are, as one neuroscientist told me as he used a powerful magnet to take control of my body’s movements, brain-machines.

This runs contrary to our every impulse. Our gut instinct, our experience, is that we make the decisions to move, to think, to eat, to steal, to lie, to punch and kick. We have constructed the entire edifice of our civilisation on this idea. Is science wrong when it says free will is a delusion? If not, what does it mean for our sense of self? And for our morality – can we prosecute people for acts over which they had no conscious control?

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Location:Monkton, Vermont

#1 - Posted: 12/04/2009 16:17

            What is free will? Does it really exist? Philosophers have debated these questions for millennia. According to Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, it is “The power asserted of moral beings of willing or choosing without the restraints of physical or absolute necessity.” That answers the first question, but what about the second?

            Psychology, or more specifically behaviorism, is defined as the study of a subject’s behavior based on his or her surrounding environment. This study is based on psychodynamics, which is the study of the motives, energy, and forces created by the deepest of human needs, as well as the anticipation and understanding of certain unconscious and conscious responses to specific senses.

            There is more to both psychodynamics and behaviorism, but as the topic focuses on free will and not the functions of the brain, I will not elaborate further. Instead, I would like you to imagine a baby. A baby learns through interactions with its environment. The mental development of a baby who grows up in a desert environment will be different from that of a baby who grows up in an environment that is more fertile. Both children will be born with the same needs, but each will learn a different way to achieve them. Now place a computer next to the baby. The computer and the baby are not  so very different from each other. Both start out with the most basic of programming: A computer is programmed to take input and use it to perform a task. In a human, we would call this instinct.

            A few years ago, I went to an engineering fair at a local college, where a booth on Artificial Intelligence was set up. There was a television showing a video of a robot, which was supposed to be the newest breakthrough in AI technology. It looked like a metal starfish, and all it did was flop around. I was somewhat intrigued, and soon learned after a brief period of questioning that this robot analyzed the surface it was on and figured out how to move across it most efficiently. However, this was not all that it could do. It also “taught” other robots how to move across the surfaces that it had already traversed. That was what made it so important: its learning was based on interaction with its environment. One of these robots in a desert would learn to move differently from a robot in a more fertile environment, just like the baby. But what if the robot’s basic programming included other things besides learning how to move, which even in humans is one of the first things that we learn. What about programming it to learn how to see or hear commands, and smell or taste. The robot is becoming more and more like a baby. But what does this have to do with free will? A computer doesn’t have free will, does it?  My calculator doesn’t decide to compute numbers by itself. But what if the robot’s learning didn’t stop? What if, like the baby, it continued to learn from its environment? How much does a baby have to learn from its environment to reach the point of consciousness? Can people not remember being a baby because they hadn’t yet reached it?  When does intelligence becoming consciousness?

            Do amoebas have free will? Most would say no, comparing an amoeba to a human is like comparing a calculator to a super-computer. My answer to this is yes, that is exactly what it is like. Acording to the theory of evolution, we started as amoebas once, just like modern computers started as basic calculators. Where did our ancestors aquire free will? Is there a certain level of intelligence that when reached gives us the ability to act freely? And if so, why shouldn’t a computer which is smart enough be able to reach it as well?

            With enough knowledge of a computer’s programming, it is possible to determine exactly what its next move will be. In the case of a machine that has reached consciousness, the knowledge of its programming would have to be astronomical. Theoretically, however, this would be possible with a computer with enough processing power. Psychologists do this all the time with patients using the aformentioned psychodynamics and behaviorism. They determine why a person behaves in a certain way by studying their actions and past environmental interaction. If a person had access to the patient’s “programming,” they would be able to correctly determine what that patient would do in any circumstance. If they were also able to predict exactly what the patient would interact with, they would know exactly what the patient’s future would be. This doesn’t mean that the patient no longer has free will. They can do whatever they want. But what they do will be based on their programmed responses to the environment.

            It doesn’t end there. How could we possibly predict what the patient will interact with? The technology doesn’t exist now, and most likely never will. If it were possible to track every atom and molecule, determine how they would interact with each other, and what would result from that interaction, it would be possible to determine everything that will ever happen before it actually occurs. According to string-theory and the m-theory, there are 10 dimensions. The act of tracking these particles and using them to determine how the patient will act is almost equivalent to seeing in the 4th dimension- time. And if you can see time, you would also see everything that happened, everything that was happening, and everything that will happen in a single moment. Time would stop for them, because everything has already happened, is happening, and will happen is happening at the same time. Time would be reduced from a line to a single point. Even though they knew what their future choices would be, they wouldn’t be able to change it, because it already happened in the fourth dimension. But for this to occur, every molecule, down to the smallest sub-atomic particle, in the universe, would have to be tracked as well. There is also the possibilty that every particle in other universes would have to be tracked. If the many-worlds theory, as well as string theory, is to be believed,  there are an infinite amount of universes. In the string theory, this is the eighth dimension. In each universe is an infinite amount of choices that are made, and each choice has an infinite amount of decisions. This brings us to the tenth dimension. According to the many-worlds theory, in each universe, a different decision is made for each choice. If all possible decisions are made, then there is no free will. The decisions in other universes don’t depend on the ones that I make. My decision is just different from all the others.

            Environment might still influence each decision in all of these universes. According to m-theory, it is possible that each of the four-dimensional universes are contained within a membrane, or brane, and co-exist within a higher dimensional space, parallel to each other. It is also possible that the gravitational forces of each universe are not contained within the four dimensions, and warp the space time of the surrounding universes. With an infinite amount of universes, many of them would be almost exactly the same as ours, with very minor changes in environment. If everything that ever happened in this universe also happened in a parallel universe, but with minor changes in environment, the you in that universe would have differences in how they process information, and would cause them to make a decision that you wouldn’t when presented with the same choices as them.

            I believe that we do not have free will. Yes, we have the ability to make whatever choices we want, but these choices are always influenced by the environment, and the environment is influenced by physics. Does this mean that life is hollow and meaningless? I’ll leave that question to the philosophers. 


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